In the current generation a lot of discussion has taken place about "hardcore" and "casual" players and their impact on the industry. It's a topic that creates hard feelings and perpetuates elitism among the hardcore. Much of the animosity stems from the fact that the hardcore demograph has less impact on sales with each passing day. This has created a retail situation where the Nintendo Wii soundly trumps the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 despite the latter two platforms having delivered better and more consistent content to enthusiasts. This clear discrepancy between what many believe should happen and what is actually taking place at store counters worldwide has caused many hardcore players to become concerned about the future prospects of their past time.
This anxiety generally manifests itself in demonizing the Wii's new audience, but gamers are overlooking a third demograph that has played kingmaker for the last decade. This group, which is even larger than the current reaches of Nintendo's blue ocean, remains unaccounted for this generation but the silent majority can't remain quiet much longer. The hardware manufacturer that realizes this first will reap the benefits.
When outlining who comprises this third group it is important to clear up some popular misconceptions about the "casual" audience. The Nintendo Wii's mission statement is to sell gaming to people that have largely ignored our industry up to this point in time. These people, let's call them "non-gamers" since it's the most logical title, have been pushing the Wii to new sales records. Prior to the Wii the casual gamer and non-gamer were not seen as the same group, and in fact they are not the same group today. Non-gamers are by definition people that did not buy consoles with any regularity until the Nintendo DS or Wii. The casual gamer has been a major part of our industry since the original PlayStation. They spearheaded the hobby's leap into mainstream acceptance and away from the nerd tag game players had been saddled with for decades. The casual gamer allows Madden, GTA, and Halo to sell millions of copies in a matter of days. They buy only a few games a year and these titles are generally popular sequels. They play games with some regularity but it is not an all-consuming part of their lives. They are the group that made the PS1 and PS2 successively the best-selling home consoles in history. The last fact should jump out immediately: these people are more of a force then either the hardcore or non-gamer and possibly bigger then both combined. With the casual label being thrown at Wii buyers, it's easy to get the two groups confused but they are very different, and this is a critical point.
This group has been forgotten amidst the storm of hardcore vs. casual debates, yet they are the ones who will most likely decide the victor in this generation of home consoles. So why does no one question their absence? Simple: it's not a topic that will incite hatred or loathing and boost readership. In the current sensationalist climate the gaming media operates in that means despite their importance they will remain a non-story. The industry has become split into two distinct factions. First, there are those who wish things were more exclusionary and centered around the enthusiast. Second, there are those who seek to bring gaming to the masses, even if it means simplifying the medium to an extent. The casual audience craves a middle ground between these two mindsets and none of the current choices offer this. In the previous two generations, the PlayStation took this middle ground, but currently none of the three machines are equipped to be their next console of choice.
Sony and Microsoft's dogged pursuit of the technophile and Nintendo's quest to convert non-gamers have caused this group to abstain from the current generation for over a year and counting. The PlayStation 2 continues to perform exceptionally well, even outselling HD consoles on occasion, and it's no coincidence. So how can this group be brought back into the fold? The first step is for all three hardware providers (although it would only take one) to broaden their horizons. The manufacturer in the best position to do this is probably Sony, since they have fallen under their banner twice previously. Many of them have probably never owned a competitor's machine, and the PS3's 2008 lineup includes familiar juggernauts like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto along with a few original IPs that have the potential to grab the casual player. Additionally, PlayStation Home cannot be underestimated. If it succeeds in becoming the equivalent of an interactive MySpace, that would almost certainly put the casual crowd squarely in Sony's camp yet again. The major deterrent is price. If the PS3 does not see a downward price revision by holiday 2008, something around $100 at minimum, no amount of software will win the day.
Nintendo is the next most logical pairing, but it will take more work. Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Wii Play do wonders for the non-gamer and the company's collection of nostalgia-driven franchises appease the hardcore fan but none of that will lure the casual player. The group ignored both the Nintendo 64 and GameCube because they only appealed to the Nintendo fan base. The Wii really only appeals to the Nintendo fan base and non-gamers because it still lacks a variety of key genres and big names that the casual gamer follows. The good news is that Nintendo may be able to leverage their growing sales lead into developer support and, given time, the Wii's library could begin to resemble the original PlayStation in its software variety. The casual gamer has already shown they care little for technical advantages, so the console's lack of high-end specs will probably not hurt Nintendo a bit. But the ball needs to start rolling soon because the software Nintendo needs to entice the casual audience will take time to create.
Microsoft and the Xbox 360 are the least likely haven for the casual audience. The 360's entire brand is designed to intimidate these people. Things like Achievements, Gamerscores, and passionate online communities are more negative than anything else in this regard. At best they are overlooked entirely, and at worst they appear to be obtrusive barriers to new players. The main reason Microsoft has little chance of gaining the casual audience is not because they couldn't change their image in time, they have the resources to do anything they want, but because it's doubtful they'd be willing to gamble losing their stranglehold on the hardcore gamer for a such a long shot. The people that buy 360's and push that incredible attach rate up will simply not stand having to take a backseat to anyone. Hardcore gamers are prima donnas in the sense that they feel like they need to be the focus at all times. Nintendo has almost completely severed its ties with this group by daring to go away from them even slightly. Imagine the backlash that would occur after a 360 press event that wasn't filled with hardware-pushing shooters and other western-centric software! The 360's course is set and it seems Microsoft is content to hope that their impressive software sales keep publishers on their side. The push for the casual audience, if it ever comes at all, is something for the 360's successor to grapple with.
The casual audience cannot be accurately measured, but they certainly outnumber the hardcore crowd and at least equal the number of non-gamers Nintendo has reeled in. This makes them the largest sustainable demograph of all. The hardcore are so named because they will always be around. The non-gamers are new and their interest in the long-term is questionable at best. The casual gamer is the industry's biggest and most reliable meal ticket and they aren't even being given lip service. People change, they move on to new things if old interests grow stale. That is the risk all three manufacturers are taking with the casual gamer by not making a serious play for them. The media leans heavily in favor of the hardcore because those are their readers but the importance of the hardcore is nothing in comparison to the casual gamer. The current generation of gaming is fantastic, but without support from the genuine casual audience, we'll look back and realize we were foolish to think we could keep this business model alive all by ourselves.
The casual gamer does not need our industry; the industry needs them. The first two PlayStations succeeded in bringing them into the fold within two years. The 360 has already failed to do that and the Wii or PS3's chances are up in the air. The window is closing. If the hardware companies don't realize that soon they may alienate an audience the industry cannot afford to lose. With all the attention given to the hardcore vs. non-gamer debate, the casual audience cannot be swept under the rug even if they aren't a particularly exciting topic. The company that wakes up to this first and caters to them will gain the silent majority that decides the winner of each generation. If no one steps up to the plate, the impact may not be felt immediately, but in the long term it would be devastating. The casual audience will not be satisfied with the PS2 forever. Eventually, they will need to be given something new to play. Don't expect them to demand it, though. They won't cry out if no one heeds the call. They'll just leave.